Posted by: Deanna | February 2, 2009

Otavalo – a uniquely Ecuadorian shopping experience

The city of Otavalo is an indigenous community about two hours north of Quito. Each Saturday, the fairly small and quiet village is transformed into a bustling marketplace, where tourists and natives alike can find anything and everything, from hand-made Ecuadorian crafts to Nike shoe knock-offs, to fresh produce and baked goods. This was my destination for the weekend, somewhere I had planned on going since reading in my first guide book months ago of the plentiful and beautiful handicrafts sold there.

I left with a group of Americans on Friday early evening, and after a dark and somewhat bumpy 2.5 hour bus ride we arrived at the town, which was surprisingly quiet and deserted. We arrived by taxi to our hostel, which was a quaint, well-kept building obviously catering to the tourists less willing to “rough it” it one of the much cheaper hostels. After some confusion with the number of rooms we would require (the hostel keeper was less than willing to accommodate Kendra and Patrick, who are dating, in the same room, which was a little surprising to me), we dropped off our stuff and decided to grab a bite. The walk was only a few blocks, so we quickly arrived at the restaurant, which seemed to emerge randomly from a deserted street of a few hole-in-the-wall cafeterias. Stepping inside, we were suddenly out of Latin America. A random conglomeration of Anglo-Saxon tourists, college students, and hippies filled the small bar, where English was the predominant language and American music played overhead. We went to bed soon after, with tentative plans to leave the hostel right after breakfast the next morning and get an early start on the gigantic shopping experience that was to await us on Saturday.

Of course, I have a fun story for the day. So, you know that bus we took from Quito to Otavalo? Well, we are now famous on that bus. Throughout Ecuador, many people uses buses to beg for money. Sometimes they recite a really sad speech about a life-threatening condition or sickly sibling, or sometimes they pass out little slips of paper. This time, a man came by and passed out said slips of paper about being deaf and mute and asking for financial support. He came by a second time and collected the slips of paper (and hopefully some spare change as well). Apparently, Patrick, one of the Americans I was with, thought it was the bus fare guy that came by, and gave him $20. $20! He didn’t realize the mistake he had made until about two hours later, when the real bus employee came by asking for the $2.50 fare. Patrick tried to explain that he had already paid, but of course he hadn’t, because he paid the deaf and mute man. The bus employee found that to be the funniest thing ever when he finally figured out what was going on, and he and the other Ecuadorians started laughing. The employee even started calling and texting people, probably explaining what some “stupid gringo” had done. Needless to say, by the time we got off the bus, everyone on it knew the story, and I think we pretty much made their day. Poor Patrick wasn’t too amused, having spent his cigar and whiskey money on unwittingly making a deaf man very, very happy.

We all got ready to go pretty quickly the next morning, not bothering with showers since they were outdoors and probably wouldn’t have hot water anyway. Then we went down to our breakfast, included in the $24.40 per room price of the hostel. Now, Ecuadorians love a hearty breakfast, and the hostel advertised a “continental” one, so we were excited. Sadly, it included juice, a choice of coffee or hot chocolate, and toast. That was it. It was a little disappointing, but it happens.

With our stomachs a little emptier than expected, we left for the market at about 8:30 and arrived in a just a few minutes. At first glance it was just like the market I had experienced at El Ejido in Quito, but then I realized… it was HUGE! It took up several city blocks and just kept going in all directions. And going. And going. There were sections of very touristy stuff, like alpaca sweaters and blankets and scarves and bags and jewelry and hand-carved items of jade and wood. There were also sections of cheap shoes, kitchen accessories, toys, even toilet paper and diapers. Finally, there was a whole section of fresh produce, chickens and meat (a little unnerving for the quasi-vegetarian like I am…), grains, spices, and bread.

I knew I was going to buy a lot, and I certainly did. I bought a LOT. So much, actually, that I had to take out money from the ATM twice. Those Otavalo people are smart, putting so many ATMs around the market… they know. Anyway, I ended up with quite a haul. I made some pretty darn good purchases, everything being beautiful, colorful, and intricate. Otavalians are known for their skilled artisanship, especially with textiles. And the prices were great. Although I’m sure I didn’t haggle as well as the natives, I started getting better there towards the end. In addition to souvenirs and such, I also made some key edible purchases, such as pineapple bread (delicious), a fruit cup (delicious), and more bread (delicious).

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Otavalo is a different world. Sure, parts of it are very, very tourist-y (and, believe me, tourists are easy to spot with their light skin, sandals, backpacks, and cameras). But other parts just remind me how different the lifestyle is here. It’s such a raw form of living – you buy produce directly from the hands of the people who grow it on their own land, you buy chickens from the people that raise chickens, and then you prepare the food yourself. The clothing you buy, the goods you use, it all originates here. It’s raw in the hygienic sense as well (meaning, hygiene doesn’t exist). But that doesn’t bother me, it is all part of it. And I love it. Finally, raw in the sense that people here have little. Some have very little. The beggars here are so miserable – most of them are aged, barefoot and appearing to have walked many a mile that way, and sitting on the ground. They will grab you as you walk by if you’re close enough. One lady almost didn’t seem like she would let go. I was uncomfortable with her grabbing me, but I was more uncomfortable with the concept of a woman being so hopeless, so destitute as to resort to that. The look on her face was haunting, and the way she grabbed me – with intense desperation. It shook me.

Even with a few bleak moments like that, I loved Otavalo. We left soon after lunch, and the bus ride back was scenic and peaceful. I was glad to be back home though, after quite an exhausting day of shopping.

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